When the Advent worship planning team looked ahead to January, we were drawn to images of light. And this passage from Isaiah caught our eye:
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.
Oh. We had no idea.
I’ve spent a lot of time this week just angry and scared and overwhelmed. Pipeline approvals. Alternative facts. Assaults on the press. Government agencies silenced. Plans for a wall. Refugees banned from our country and detained at airports.
A land of deep darkness.
The people of ancient Judah–the people Isaiah was writing to, speaking to—they also knew deep darkness. A nation ripped apart by civil war. Under constant threat of invasion. Suffering oppression of the poor by the rich and powerful. They had a king who ignored the justice demanded by Yahweh and would do anything to protect his own power. They were people who walked in darkness.
This darkness, right now–this horror of every day a new injustice, a new threat to human rights, to the health of the planet—it is awful. It is stressful. It is terrible. . . . But it is not new.
Biblical scholar Dennis Bratcher writes that this passage from Isaiah “is really about living under threat in a world that is beyond our control, a world that lies in the hands of leaders who make stupid and selfish and even cowardly decisions, who refuse to trust God.” Brachter says that we cannot deny the darkness in our world, so “[t]he question, then, for God’s people is how should we live in such a world?”.
I’m sure I was drawn to the Isaiah passage this week because of the familiar darkness, because of the longing for light, because of my hope for an answer to this question: How do we live in such a world?
The Bible has a lot to say about this. So much, in fact, that we will be looking at this Sunday over the course of a three-week series. This morning we will consider what the life of Jesus teaches us—what it means to faithfully follow Jesus right now. Next week, we will look to the Hebrew scriptures, particularly the ten commandments. And the next Sunday, we will turn to the epistles—the letters of the New Testament.
So. Now. Jesus. My goodness, do we need some Jesus right now.
To be clear, I’m not planning to talk about what Jesus would say about telling lies or banning refugees or building a pipeline. I think I know what he would say. And I think you know what I think he would say. And I’m happy to talk or email about why I think that.
But this is not about political positions or moral failings in leadership. This is about how we live faithfully in our country right now. It’s a complex question with a lot of potential answers. Here are a few suggestions:
Be part of a community. Early in Jesus’ ministry he forms a community. Jesus and the twelve, along with some women like Joanna and Mary Magdalene, travel together. They eat together, pray together, minister together. Even when Jesus sends the seventy out, he sends them in pairs. It is important for us to be connected to each other. To be connected to people who also want to see God’s love and justice in this world. I realize I’m biased here, but I highly recommend you show up at church. Every week. Find other groups to keep you grounded and engaged. Invite people over to your house for meals, games, movies, conversation.
- But not everyone is part of your community. That is not to say that everyone is not welcome to participate. Or that we should not show love and respect to everyone. But it is to say that equality and peace and justice are not part of the vision that everyone shares. The priorities we have as followers of Christ are not the priorities of everyone around us. Jesus told people to leave their families. He told his disciples that if they were not welcome into a town, they should shake the dust from their feet and move on. Not everyone will love you. Not everyone will agree with you. That is OK. You have permission to shake off the dust.
- Confront power creatively. Jesus’ commands to turn the other cheek and walk the extra mile are ways for people to resist authority in peaceful ways. He calls out religious and political leaders for their hypocrisy and oppression. He tells a parable about a widow who repeatedly takes her case to a judge until the judge gives in just to shut her up. One about a man who knocks and knocks and knocks at his neighbor’s door until the neighbor finally gets out of bed and gives he what he wants. Jesus did not fight the oppressive Roman occupation or the corrupt religious system in the way most people expected—he did not gather an army and attack with swords. But he did resist oppression and corruption. He did upset the powerful. We know they were upset, because they executed him. We’re going to have to figure this out together. Figure out what turning the other cheek and walking the extra mile look like today. How do we resist oppression in ways that are creative and disconcerting? And who do we need to pester? What doors do we need to knock on?
- Jesus was a teacher. Teaching is about revealing truth, and we desperately need people to speak truth right now. We need people to teach us about history and public policy and white privilege and gender bias and religious liberty and health care and the Constitution and the Bible and any number of issues that are relevant to what is going on. Maybe you are one to teach some of these things. And you probably also need to learn some of these things.
- Jesus was a healer. In fact, healing is what Jesus does more than anything else in the Gospels. He offers healing words, healing touch. We can be conduits of God’s healing for the people we encounter. There is also a less comfortable yet quite common form of healing in the Gospels: exorcisms. I do not know exactly what those exorcisms were all about; I do not understand the spiritual realm. But I am increasingly convinced that there is evil in this world—an evil beyond the bad things that individuals do. We might call this a spiritual evil. And we might need a term like exorcism to talk about how we work for healing at the deepest, hardest level.
This is heavy, right? Jesus was amazing. He was Jesus. He performed miracles. And we are just us. And we don’t do miracles. And we have a cold. And we have tax returns to prepare. So. Just a few more ideas about what it means to follow Jesus. Ideas that I hope feel more like help than burden.
- Jesus was a fun and funny guy. He was always going to parties and talking about parties. We miss a lot of his humor in translation, but really. He nicknames Simon, the most impetuous of all the disciples, “the rock.” He doesn’t just turn the water into wine, he turns it into really good wine—like, better wine than the host should actually be serving. I think that’s pretty funny. He talks about crazy things like a camel going through the eye of a needle and putting a lamp under a basket and building a house on sand. And he tells funny stories. The parables . . . trust me, if you were a first century Jew, you’d be laughing at loud at some of those parables. Part of being faithful is having fun. Holding lightly. Laughing. Breathing. Please keep breathing.
- Jesus withdrew from the crowds. We also need spaces of quiet. We need to turn off the TV news and shut down the computer and put away the newspapers for awhile. You’ll have to decide when and how to do this for yourself. But please, withdraw to a quiet place at least once in awhile.
- Jesus prayed. A lot. He prayed by himself and with his friends. He prayed in church and in the wilderness. He prayed formal prayers and he muttered snarky comments to God under his breath when it all got to be too much. Pray my friends. Whatever that looks like for you, do it. And however much you’re used to praying, do more of it. And if you want some help figuring out what that might look like for you—get in touch with me. It is actually my job to help people pray. I know it’s crazy that I get to have such a cool job. But it’s true.
- Jesus preached good news. In the midst of the darkness, the light does shine. We see it when hundreds of people gather at airports to protest the immigration ban. And when a judge bars the deportation of refugees. We see it in our Mennonite Church statement on immigration which calls us to serve as advocates for this vulnerable group of people. And in the statements by so many faith communities from across the theological spectrum citing scriptural mandates to care for the foreigner and stranger. We see the light shining in the hard and good work of so very many groups working for justice in this country. And in the compassionate words and actions of people all around us. Read the good news stories. Share the good news stories. Participate in the good news stories.
- Jesus IS the Good News. The ultimate truth of our faith is that we have eternal and abundant life with God. Nothing, no one, can take that away. I realize speaking of eternal life can seem trite and dismissive in times like this. Please, please don’t tell immigrants who are being banned or black people facing police brutality or Native Americans whose land is being desecrated that everything, really, is fine. Because of course it’s not fine. Oh. It is so not fine. Still, in the midst of all that is not fine, if we look to the example and promise of Christ, we can join the proclamation of Julian of Norwich: “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.”
That is the truth we carry as Christians. Not a truth that lulls us to complacency. But a truth that gives us room to breathe. And these breaths keep us alive. These breaths allow us to do the work of Christ.
This is an edited version of a sermon preached at Peace Mennonite Church, Lawrence, KS, on January 29, 2017.